The uphill battle: getting a response in the “wrong” language

The uphill battle: getting a response in the “wrong” language

Ever felt the frustration of getting a response in the “wrong” language from your child? If you are parent speaking the lesser used language, then the answer is almost certainly Yes! It is one of the hardest situations facing a parent in a multilingual family and also one of the most common reasons for giving up on raising a bilingual child. After all, it is so easy to give in, especially when you are also battling with all the other pressures of parenthood – why add another stress factor to the mix?

I understand all that, feel your pain and take your point, but please, stick with it – later on you will be so pleased and proud of yourself that you did. Although it might not feel like it now, it takes so much less effort now than later.

So why does this happen and how should you react? There are several reasons which vary on the child’s age and environment – today’s blog is about pre-school aged children. I will get back to older children another day. The start is easy, a baby will accept whatever language you speak. This is also the time when you should get used to speaking your language with your child – it is harder to switch a language at the point when you hear the first precious words. It is recommended that the parents speaking two different languages should become the norm well before the child starts speaking.

The first crucial stage is when the child stays a longer time in a group of monolingual playmates, typically at a playgroup or nursery. Your toddler might start speaking the “wrong” language to you at home as well. The first time this happens, you are probably taken aback, disappointed, not knowing what to do. The important thing is to not change your own language use, but also not make a big deal of the situation. Use gentle coercion, repeat what your child said, but in your language. Lead the child towards the “right” language by asking questions “Did you mean…?”, “Oh, I see, you did/made/saw …” Then listen carefully and show your joy when you get the response in the “right” language. Some parents use the method of pretending not to understand, though I am not keen on that approach, as it may give the child negative connotations to the language.

Research has shown that the more easily a minority language parent switches to the majority language when talking to the child, the greater the probability that the minority language later on becomes a passive language. Passive language use means that the child will understand, but not speak the language. To keep the language active, consistency and perseverance are the words.

Children are generally very pragmatic in their behaviour and the same goes for their language use – whatever feels easiest. It is your task as a parent to steer them back to using your language. This does not mean that you are being a horrible strict parent (no matter what others say!) If your child wants to eat sweets all day, you stop that, don’t you, because you know what is best for your darling.

Consistency and persistence in language use are crucial, but they may not always be enough. You need motivation both for yourself and your child. For your child, us bribery, tricks, whatever works to get over this phase. Buy a hand puppet that only speaks your language, sing songs, read stories, make up games in your language. Make speaking your language fun. Also, remember to always be proud of your own language, your attitude will rub off on your child.

For yourself, keep in mind all the advantages the additional language will bring with it – and reward yourself with something nice each time you manage to stick with it. It may be an uphill battle, but the view from the top is fantastic!

May the peace and power be with you!


© Rita Rosenback 2013
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Categories: Challenges, Practical advice

12 replies

  1. Hi Rita,
    Do you have any suggestions how to go about reading books which are in ‘majority’ language? I have to admit to not being consistent about this – sometimes I read the books in original (different from my mother tongue) to my children, whereas other times I translate them as I read out loud to them.

    • Well done to you to be translating on the fly while reading stories! I used to do that, too, and one thing which is really good about it, is that the stories are never exactly the same from one time to another, so the child can’t go “Mum, you missed a bit” or “You read that wrong” 🙂
      Ideally read (or tell) the story in your language until the language patterns in the family are well established. Especially since you are the minority language parent, you do not want to make your children used to you using the majority language with them, as that will make it easier for them to switch to it with you later on. Maybe get someone else to read the stories, or even record them? In any case, reading to your child is always good, no matter which language, so keep it up!

      • Thank you so much for your reply Rita, it is very helpful! It is really encouraging to learn I’m on a ‘good’ path and not doing something wrong from the onset. It’s been a steep learning curve, and I am very grateful for every bit of advice on the way! 🙂

  2. This has been our approach so far. Glad to see it is perhaps a good way to go! Great blog, with lots of great info. Thank you!

  3. Thank you for your feedback and lovely comment. I am happy to hear that you find my blog useful. – Are there any other challenges that you find particularly tricky in your quest to raise a bilingual child?


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